Copland – Appalachian Spring

by Max Derrickson

Aaron Copland   (b Brooklyn, NY, 14 Nov 1900; North Tarrytown, NY, 2 Dec 1990)

Appalachian Spring

For many, Appalachian Spring has come to represent the “sound of Appalachia” – that ancient chain of low mountains marching up the eastern seaboard, with their dense wilderness, granting views that gently span the horizon through a myriad of brilliant autumnal colors and misty pastels and filled with the folk music of song and fiddles almost as ancient as the mountains.  The ballet’s underlying story is also equally well known: that of a newlywed pioneer family “building a house with joy and love and prayer.”  Interestingly, both Appalachia and this story weren’t applied until much later in its creation.  Commissioned of Copland in 1942 by the famous American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the grande dame of Modern Dance, and by the Coolidge Foundation, the ballet music that Copland originally conceived of was titled “Ballet for Martha” and he said that “the music … takes as a point of departure the personality of Martha Graham.”  And it was only just before the ballet’s premiere in 1944 when Graham herself happened across the lovely phrase that became its title, “Appalachian spring,” finding it in a poem by Hart Crane called The Bridge, where the “spring” referred to a water source, not the season.  Although a basic outline of the ballet’s story existed from the start, most of the details that we know today were hammered out in the several months prior to its premiere.

Two aspects in the commissioning of Appalachian Spring, however, were essential to its creation from the very beginning: that the music be danceable, and that it be American sounding.  And these two aspects Copland undeniably achieved in this, his greatest masterpiece.   American born and bred, Appalachian Spring has remained peerless as the music that captured the spirit of America.   To be sure, its musical canvas conveys a humility and newness that has become easily attached to a nostalgic American perception of itself, and one of its most beloved melodies, the beautiful hymn tune “Simple Gifts*,” gives the musical score a deeply honest and hopeful feel.  These characteristics lend themselves wonderfully to any dance interpretation.  Originally scored for 13 instruments (1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, piano and strings) to be danced in the small Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC,  Copland revised and condensed the score in 1945 into a suite for full orchestra, now its most well known version.  The original version, however, retains its own wonderful charm and is a delight to listen to, especially when accompanied by dance.

*A note about the tune “Simple Gifts”:  The Shakers, a break-off sect from the Quakers, immigrated from England to America in 1774.  “Shakers” was a pejorative term for the sect describing their lively and ecstatic form of worship, which involved a lot of their own, original music accompanied by swaying and twirling dance.  Music played a part in all aspects of Shaker life, and was thought of, dually, as utilitarian and spiritual in essence, and these songs were referred to as work-song-hymns.  In 1875, Shaker member Elder Joseph Brackett composed “Simple Gifts.”  It was published in a compendium not long afterwards called The Gift To Be Simple: Shaker Rituals and Songs, which is where Copland found it.  The song’s lilting, sweet melody and its humble, yet joyful, lyrics seem to capture the essence of Appalachian Spring as well as any description.  They are:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free;
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we sha’n’t be asham’d
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.